NEW DELHI - An Indian Supreme Court panel failed on Thursday to rule on a ban on hijabs in schools, referring the matter to the chief justice after a split decision, and leaving in place a state's ruling against the scarfs worn by women that sparked an uproar.
Karnataka state's ban on the garment in schools in February unleashed protests by Muslim students and their parents.
In response, Hindu students staged counter protests, raising another contentious issue at a time that some Muslims have complained of marginalisation under a Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
India's debate on the hijab comes as protests have rocked Iran after women objected to dress codes under its Islamic laws.
"We have a divergence of opinion," said Supreme Court Justice Hemant Gupta, one of two judges on the panel.
Justice Gupta said he had wanted an appeal against the ban to be quashed while his colleague on the panel, Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia, said wearing the hijab was a "matter of choice".
The chief justice would set up a larger bench to further consider the case, they said but did not say by when that could happen. Supreme Court decisions apply nationwide.
Mr Anas Tanwir, a lawyer for one of the Muslim petitioners who appealed against the Karnataka ban, told Reuters the split verdict was a "semi-victory" for them.
"Hopefully, the chief justice will set up the larger bench soon and we will have a definitive verdict," he said by telephone.
Muslims are the biggest minority group in India, accounting for 13 per cent of the population of 1.4 billion, the majority of whom are Hindu.
Critics of the hijab ban say it is another way of marginalising the Muslim community, adding that Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rules Karnataka, could benefit from the controversy ahead of a state election due by May next year.
The BJP, which draws its support mainly from Hindus, says the ban has no political motive. REUTERS